Foster Care Devolution

While California Governor Jerry Brown’s vision for public education comes with more money to local educational agencies, the price tag for foster youth could be the elimination of a groundbreaking program that put California at the forefront of a national movement to better educate students in foster care.

Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown describes his “Local Control Funding Formula” during the State of the State address in Jan.

During his State of the State address last month, California Governor Jerry Brown laid out his $56 billion plan to decentralize and reduce accountability of the state’s public education system, while increasing monies to jurisdictions with high concentrations of vulnerable children. Brown’s “Local Control Funding Formula” would increase funding to County Offices of Education and School Districts based on the number of English Learners, low-income students and foster children under their jurisdiction.

“This formula recognizes the fact that a child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English or living in a foster care home requires more help,” Brown said during his address. “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.”

But the plan would eliminate most remaining categorical funding streams, which often serve those very same children in “unequal situations” that the Governor claims to be helping with his plan. A target for elimination is Foster Youth Services, which has, since 1981, been the gold standard in public education’s response to the unique academic needs of foster youth. In addition, the per-pupil increase in funding that school districts will receive for vulnerable students is not actually tied to foster youth, despite repeated claims that foster youth are to be given special weight in the new formula.

The elimination of Foster Youth Services threatens to derail hard won progress in educating California’s 42,000 school-aged foster youth, degrade accountability and impinge on existing strategies to draw down federal and other funding streams for students in foster care. Advocates also worry that without “meaningful” inclusion in the Gov.’s funding formula, foster youth run the risk of being mentioned now just to be forgotten later.

Despite ample evidence that foster youth experience more school moves than most other student populations, suffer high levels of emotional and physical trauma that affect academic progress and are unique in that the state has removed them from their homes, the California Department of Finance asserts that their profile is not dissimilar to the much-larger groups of students who are receiving a concentrated additional weight.

“Research suggests that foster youth, low-income students and English learners require additional resources to address their unique needs, and we are treating them equally,” wrote Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer, in an email response to queries by the Chronicle. “We aren’t aware of any research or anecdotal evidence that would suggest that these groups be treated differently. So while foster youth are not being granted a double or additional weight, their unique needs are certainly being addressed through the generation of supplemental and concentration grant funding, as well as the requirement that districts demonstrate how they will address the needs of these students in their local accountability plans.”

The local accountability plans that Palmer is referencing are yet to exist. Instead the trailer bill only lists some requirements that the State Board of Education must use when drafting the accountability templates to be given to districts, including addressing the needs of foster youth, low income students and English language learners.

While supportive of the Governor’s overall vision of directing funds to vulnerable populations, many child welfare stakeholders worry that by stripping the accountability clearly delineated in Foster Youth Services, the state will relinquish its responsibility to this particularly vulnerable group of kids.

“When there is no requirement, what is the likelihood that the 58 counties and over 1,000 school districts will continue and improve the plight of these children?” said Teri Kook, Director of Child Welfare at the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation.

An Answer to Instability

Research consistently suggests that childhood trauma, placement instability and a myriad other factors leave many students in foster care far behind their peers in almost all academic measures. The vast majority of children in foster care, 67 percent, are school-aged, according to a factsheet compiled by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education. More than one third of 17-18 year old foster youth experienced six or more school moves, according the Midwest Study conducted by researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Another study of 3-8 year old foster children in Chicago Public Schools, also conducted by Chapin Hall, found that they were one half to a year behind their peers in reading.

In 1981, the California legislature reacted to the dismal education outcomes foster youth face by passing legislation that created Foster Youth Services (FYS), amending the Education Code to read: “without programs specifically designed to meet their individual needs, foster children are frequently dysfunctional human beings at great welfare and penal costs.”

FYS places liaisons in County Offices of Education and six core school districts. The liaisons ensure records follow students in foster care and that their best interests are protected as they bounce from home to home and school to school.

“If you are going to serve foster youth – all foster youth – you have to realize that they are mobile and you need a county-wide entity to follow these youth because they move from school district to school district,” said Elizabeth Tarango, Foster Youth Services Program Manager for Alameda County.

There are 18 school districts in Alameda County; Los Angeles County has more that 80. School districts often don’t have the expertise or jurisdiction to follow foster students as they move across large geographic areas, Tarango said.

A report submitted to the Governor in October of 2012, found that “70 percent of eligible foster youth received a high school diploma, passed the General Education Development Test, or received a certificate of completion,” well over the roughly 50 percent found to graduate in numerous studies of foster youth’s educational outcomes. Foster youth served in the six core districts had an expulsion rate of about a quarter of one percent, far less than the five percent goal the state expects from FYS programs.

Further, the work of these educational liaisons expanded expertise on the education of foster youth and helped form the basis of Assembly Bill 490, passed in 2004. AB490 allows foster youth to stay in their school of origin if they move school districts, and calls for the timely transfer of records when a school move is deemed necessary. Beyond inception, FYS liaisons have been a key part of implementation, acting as advocates for foster children and conduits for inter-jurisdictional communication.

National Model

The establishment of FYS put California at the vanguard in in what is now a full-blown national movement towards improving educational outcomes for students in foster care. Four years after AB490 became law, federal lawmakers included similar mandates in the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, including guidance stating that students in foster care should be enrolled in their school of origin or best interest even if it means crossing school districts.

As child welfare administrations across the county grappled with implementing Fostering Connections’ mandates, Congress continued to focus attention on the educational needs of foster youth. In 2011, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions passed an amendment, proposed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would strengthen Fostering Connections’ educational mandates by creating similar language compelling local educational agencies to support the education of foster youth

And in January, President Barack Obama signed a bill introduced by former California Assembly Speaker and current U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D) that amends the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 to allow social workers access to foster student records.

Beyond the clear influence on federal policy, FYS has inspired at least six states to implement their own, similar programs, according to Jesse Hahnel, director of the National Center for Youth Law’s Foster Youth Education Initiative.

“The idea of having a statewide program that is improving the educational outcomes of foster children is increasingly becoming something state’s are embracing,” Hahnel said. And when other states do pick up charge on educating foster youth they often look to California, because as Hahnel puts it, “California was the first and is probably the best.”

Jeopardized Future

FYS proponents are concerned that without mandates attached to funding for foster youth, county offices of education may shift resources away from the thirty year old program; if not now, sometime in the future.

Currently, California’s education code includes four pages of guidance on the implementation of Foster Youth Services and sets a framework for the desired educational outcomes for students in foster care. Over the past two years, the program has cost $15 million dollars each year – negligible in comparison to the tens of billions being spent on education as a whole.

The 58 County Offices of Education and six select school districts apply to the state for grants to fund their FYS programs based on the number of foster youth in the county. To maintain funding they have to report and show positive outcomes.

Under the Governor’s plan, counties would retain their share of the $15 million doled out each year, but that funding would no longer be tied to FYS. In addition they will receive a per pupil bump to their general funds to serve foster youth, students on free and reduced-price lunch, and English learners.

“The entire construct of the Governor’s proposal is that counties are given more control of use of funding and that of course has great appeal,” said David Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendent’s Educational Services Association, which represents county superintendents from across the state.

While Birdsall said that most of the superintendents he spoke to said they would make foster youth a priority, “the concern is that we went through five years of horrendous budget cuts, so what happens when that happens again?”

David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools, echoed Birdsall’s overall sentiment that the Governor’s could work well for foster youth, but conceded that without strong county leadership the academic success of foster youth is uncertain.

“My feeling is that this is a very strong message from the state that you need to keep serving those kids and that you have to step up services,” Gordon said. But, “there is really an unknown with this,” he added. “Categoricals had state leadership, so to speak. Now state leadership will be detached, so this issue will have to be reframed and it could be very effective or ineffective depending who [on the county level] is doing it and how imaginative they are.”

Uncertainty About Funding

H.D. Palmer of the Department of Finance says the trailer Bill will provide funding levels for foster youth at a higher rate than is currently available.

But as a letter being circulated signed by as many as 60 advocacy groups including the John Burton Foundation the National Center for Youth Law, the California Youth Connection and a handful of county offices of education states, this is not entirely accurate.

“Since every foster child is categorically eligible for the [Free and Reduced-Lunch Meal Program], districts will not receive a single additional penny as a result of a student being in foster care,” the letter reads.

As a Jan. 31, 2011 letter issued by the United States Department of Agriculture explains, in 2010 the National School Lunch Act (NSLA) provided categorical eligibility for free meals “to any foster child whose care and placement is the responsibility of the state or who is placed by a court in a caretaker.”

So, as the Department of Finance acknowledges, there is no new money tied directly to foster youth. Instead foster youth are lumped into a broadly defined group of vulnerable children; protected by scant, undefined accountability; while the funds to support Foster Youth Services are swept into County Office of Education general funds.

Tarango of Alameda County Foster Youth Services points out that over the years FYS programs like hers have created a delicate funding ecology that will be difficult to duplicate on a district level. The total FYS budget in Alameda County is just under $820,000; $550,000 comes from the state for FYS and the remaining $270,000 is derived from federal education grants and funds from the county’s child welfare department.

“Many FYS programs have leveraged dollars to keep up with the demand for services as the need for support of this vulnerable population remains,” Tarengo wrote in an email to the Chronicle. “With the recent implementation of AB 12, the extension of foster care, we fully expect to see more youth stabilize into young adulthood with college degrees and/or with vocational goals completed. The FYS programs have been the vital partner in helping foster youth and providers navigate both education and juvenile justice systems.”

The letter being circulated by advocates calls for maintenance of FYS and “meaningful” inclusion of foster youth in the Local Control Funding Formula. This would require the state to make actual distinctions between foster youth and other vulnerable populations.

“Weighted student formulas are becoming prevalent across the country,” Hahnel of the National Center for Youth Law said. “We are just figuring out how foster youth enter into that. California again has an opportunity to be at the forefront of educating foster youth by separately and meaningfully including them in the Local Control Funding Formula.”

The Senate will hold a Budget Review Hearing on Feb. 28th and the Assembly will take up the issue in a budget subcommittee on March 12th.

Daniel Heimpel is the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change. 

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